A Revolution in Tunisia

Tunisians sick of their government chase an autocrat from power while Western media weren’t paying attention.

If you follow CNN, Fox News or MSNBC to catch up on what’s happening in the world, you may have been surprised to learn that Tunisia, a small Arab state wedged between Algeria and Libya, is experiencing an internal revolution. Despite a month-long period of domestic unrest, which has included both peaceful anti-government protests and violent spats between civilians and security forces, the mainstream media in the United States is just starting to pick up the story. As Marc Lynch wrote at Foreign Policy, this comes in stark contrast to a similar set of demonstrations that rocked the Iranian government in the summer of 2009. Democracy advocates and American lawmakers were heavily interested in that episode yet the Tunisian revolution hasn’t received nearly the same amount of airtime.

Yet this complaint is miniscule when compared to what is actually happening on the ground in Tunisia. The story is the top rated issue in the Arab media and millions of Arabs remain glued to their television sets to witness whether a new historical period is in the making.

Everything in Tunisia is happening quickly, so it’s confusing to sketch out where the country is standing as this entry is written. One new development is often replaced by another in a matter of hours. But as it stands right now, the 23-year ruler of Tunisia, autocratic Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been driven out of the country by widespread protests. 5- to 6,000Tunisian protesters have gathered in force and converged inside the capital, demonstrating against the corruption and lack of opportunity that has plagued Tunisian society for years.

It’s difficult to fathom that a couple thousand angry civilians can end the reign of a dictator, let alone a dictator that has ruled for over two decades. Indeed, similar protests and unrest against Arab regimes in the past have done nothing to weaken, let alone depose those governments. The casual observer (and perhaps the United States government) probably considered the Tunisian demonstrations as nothing but a minor nuisance until a few days ago.

Instead, the collective rage of young and educated Tunisians, many of whom are struggling to find full-time employment (despite completing college) have terminated the authority of one of the most repressive figures in Arab political life. Tunisian Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi has already taken over the government from Ben Ali on an interim basis, promising that new elections will be held in a matter of months.

As someone who has no knowledge of Tunisia whatsoever, I cannot analyze this event too deeply. But what is interesting is the Arab reaction to the popular movement in Tunisia. Many Arabs hold the same grievances against their own governments — the lack of political freedom, media censorship, economic disparity — so civil society groups in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria may be tempted to use Tunisia as a blueprint for their own internal revolutions.

Whether or not this is the beginning of a new “Arab Spring” is open for discussion. The last time a similar popular movement brought down a government (Lebanon in 2005), analysts in the United States were predicting that the region was entering a magical new democratic renaissance. That prediction turned out to be wrong, with Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” being the exception of Arab reform rather than the rule.

Still, what is happening in Tunisia is still very exciting, even if Egyptians, Jordanians or Iranians fail to implement their own internal political revolutions.

Update: Christopher Alexander of Davidson College makes a great point: who is going to lead Tunisia after this crisis is over? When elections are scheduled, no one really knows the types of candidates that will win. The Islamist opposition has been beaten back to the point of oblivion; secular democrats are unorganized while the main political organizations that are operating inside the country haven’t done much during this entire crisis. When elections are scheduled, Tunisia may see a lot of new faces.

Update 2: Remember when I said that the Tunisia crisis was unfolding quickly? Well, apparently, the interim rule of Prime Minister Ghannouchi is already over. The speaker of parliament, Fouad Mebaza, is now the acting president until new elections can be scheduled.